I remember it was noon on a warm and sunny day. The air smelled of food, dust, gun powder, and smoke, just like every day. I was a dusty-haired six-year-old wearing a sticky dress and dirty, half-torn slippers, my nose runny and crusted. I was attempting to fly a kite, not that well, when all of a sudden, boom!
It felt as if the whole building near me was collapsing, like in an earthquake. All I saw was smoke, fog, and darkness.
I woke up after being unconscious; not only was my kite gone, but my hearing as well. I couldn’t stop screaming and crying because I was hurt, and I saw a doctor and some other people around me putting strange liquids, like wet ash and olive oil, in my left ear.
In my country, most doctors were not official. They were usually poorly trained and inexperienced or knew only about traditional medicine. There was one real doctor named Dr. Shahnaz, but she was working only at home because the Mujahedins (anti-Russian fighters) did not allow any women to work outside of their homes. Later on, I heard that the Mujahedins had killed her in her own house because besides treating regular people, she was also treating Khalqiha, soldiers who were longtime rivals of the Mujahedins.
Instead of making my ear and hearing better, they made it worse.
There was a war going on in Afghanistan, so how could there be doctors like in the United States? Most people, let’s say 95 percent, had been born in their houses, without any hospitalization, records, or birth certificates. There was no official education except the study of the Quran with a mullah or a home teacher. Children grew up with war, and we were used to it; it was normal to me. I was not scared of fighters, shootings, bullets crossing over my head, or people getting hurt or killed.
My family lived in Qandahar, the most dangerous city in the country. Our house was located at the end of a short and dark tunnel. The streets were dirty, dusty, and polluted. As a child, I played on the streets and watched people living their poor day-to-day lives among soldiers and the scary Mujahedins, with their long robes, beards, and a long cloth wrapped around their heads that covered their faces except for the eyes. Almost every day, I saw the soldiers running around, hiding, looking for trenches around the people’s houses, or I saw the Mujahedins. I thought it was like playing hide and seek, except they all had guns and were firing.
One day, just after the last day of Eid — the national Ramadan holiday and celebration of all Muslims in the world — my family were still celebrating, wearing new clothes and visiting friends. My two younger brothers, Jamil and Khalil, and I had just visited one of our favorite bakeries in Chawke Shaheeda in Qandahar, and we wanted to go home.
My older brother, Arif, escorted us from the store and showed us how to take a shortcut through the private streets to walk home quickly and safely. When we left the store, my brothers turned right at the first street and continued, as directed by Arif, but I kept going straight. Then my oldest brother noticed me going the wrong way and shouted loudly, “Laila!”
Then, somebody started firing, and my brother bent down to the ground to be safe, but I could not hear him and kept going straight down the dangerous public street. As I walked further and further, I saw the covered faces of the Mujahedins hidden behind walls, firing guns. A couple of them saw me and waved me away, but I didn’t get it. Finally, one of them ran to me, quickly grabbed me and pulled me over next to himself, so I wouldn’t get killed. He asked me in Pashto, “Ta se kawee!? Esta kor cher day?” (“What are you doing!? Where is your home?”)
I told him where I lived, and he guided me to one block away from my house, and I got home safely. My mother was very worried about me, and definitely thought that I was already dead. This was all the result of losing my hearing. I almost got killed, but Allah saved me.
Another day, about 3:00 in the afternoon, my mother sent me to buy bread. I went to a bakery and got in line to wait my turn. Two Mujahedins appeared and violently grabbed a man out of the line and took him a few streets away. It got my attention, though nobody seemed to even care what happened because people were scared to get involved in these things, and they pretended to be ignorant. However, I left the line and started following the two Mujahedins who had taken that man.
Mujahedins and soldiers were usually not concerned about children, so we kids could go anywhere and see anything we wanted to. I saw the two Mujahedins take the man to a narrow muddy street. They talked to him and then whispered to each other, again and again. The poor guy looked so scared and hopeless that I knew something bad was going to happen very soon. The two Mujahedins put the man on the ground, tied his hands and feet, covered his mouth tight and held his head in the dirty stream of water. Then one of them unfolded a long and very sharp bayonet from the point of his gun. Both of them held the man tightly on the ground by stepping on him, and then one of them started cutting his throat; it was like they were slaughtering a sheep. I was in severe shock and couldn’t look away. The man was moving hard, twisting, and he looked like he was bicycling. His blood, bright red, flowed in the dirty stream and around his head and shoulders.
The two Mujahedins left the dead body there and moved on, but I still watched for a few more minutes. At last, I ran home, with no bread, of course, because I had completely forgotten. When I got home, my mother was so worried about me again. She got mad at me and started slapping and pinching me all over, but I did not feel anything. I was numb because my whole mind and all my thoughts were occupied with that horrible sight. I was frozen all that evening and couldn’t eat or drink. I was deep in thought and curious about that dead body, so I quickly put on my half-torn slippers again and started running as fast as I could to see what had happened to the body. When I got there, the corpse was still laying there. Nobody had even touched it. People were passing by as if nothing had happened. The man’s blood had turned thick, and the flies feasted upon it. I have never forgotten that day.
Another time, two or three Mujahedins with guns appeared at our door asking for something to eat. We were very nice to them and treated them like our guests, but they were asking weird questions: “How big is your house? How many bedrooms? How many exits? Where is the roof access?” We did not have any idea why they were asking these things. About one month later, on a summer night, we were having a nice family picnic with a fancy lamb and fish barbecue dinner in our yard. Afterwards, everybody got ready for bed in the yard, which is where we used to sleep due to the hot weather in Qandahar.
I was laying down on my space, facing the dark sky full of beautiful stars and singing, “Anar gul dana dana dana dana…negar jan qar kada namyaya khana…” (Pomegranate seed, seed, seed, seed…my friend is mad that much and not coming to me). Suddenly, it seemed like big rocks were falling down into our yard from the roof. The same Mujahedins who had been welcomed as guests in our house had returned to rob us of our money and jewelry, which they had a habit of doing to rich people in Afghanistan. Later, I would come to realize that was how they made money for their survival. They captured all of us and put guns to our heads. Then they started collecting all the money and jewelry. We were pretty rich — my father had two bakeries plus some real estate — and the Mujahedins had found out about that.
I stared at the Mujahed who had a gun to my poor little dusty head and had a flashback of that terrible and wild murder I had seen in the street. One of them got thirsty and asked for a glass of water, and my sister-in law gave it to him. When he finished drinking the water, he tossed the empty glass onto our blankets so that it wouldn’t break, quite an ironic gesture of care. After wrapping up all of our valuables, the Mujahedins left, and we were all frozen in a long and deep silence; of course, we could not go to sleep at all that night. The next day, the police “investigated,” but without luck, as usual.
My parents then decided to leave Qandahar and move to Quetta, Pakistan, because our lives were at risk in Afghanistan. First, my father sent almost all of our household things and furniture, and then he grouped the family members into twos and sent each pair one at a time because it was not safe to send the whole family at once. I was in my father’s group. Early one chilly morning, when the fog and some stars were still in the sky, my father woke me up and made us get ready to leave quietly. I had tears in my eyes and started looking around the house, especially at the pomegranate tree in the middle of our yard, my favorite.
So, that early morning we started to leave Afghanistan to go to Quetta, Pakistan. On the way, we saw a dead body face down on the street, a bowl of yogurt near his body. His blood had mixed with the yogurt and turned it a yellow greenish color. His shoes and headcloth were thrown next to him. He was shot while buying yogurt. We crossed over that body and kept walking. I slowed down to look, but my father said, “Hurry up, keep walking fast!”
We finally got on the truck headed to the border town, Chaman, with three Pashtoon families. It got darker and darker, and suddenly, the truck stopped. Two Mujahedins got all the men out of the truck. I was terrified because my father had to get out too, and I thought they were going to kill him. The Mujahedins started searching the men and took their money, then sent them back to the truck. The truck continued on.
We had a quick stop in Chaman and then arrived in Quetta, Pakistan, after 30 minutes. When I arrived in Pakistan, I didn’t see much of a difference compared to Afghanistan. Men wore long robes, cloths wrapped around their heads, beards, and the same kinds of shoes. The women also dressed like women in Afghanistan. I had hoped Pakistan would be a completely different country, like America, but at least I didn’t see the Mujahedins, Khalqi soldiers, shooting, killing, or dead bodies on the streets.
It was the early ’80s, and we settled into our life in Pakistan. After a few months, less than a year, we heard that the same Mujahedins who had robbed us before went back again to our old house to rob us again. When they saw we were not there, they were really mad and asked the renter where we were. The renter didn’t really know anything about us because, for safety, we never told anybody about moving to Pakistan. So those Mujahedins tortured the father of that family and cut his throat at the base of our pomegranate tree to water it with his blood. When I heard this, I went into deep thought again about the horror of my past in Afghanistan. I thought, “If the Mujahedins had fought for Afghanistan against the Russians, then why were they so cruel to their people?” I never understood that.
In Quetta, my family registered me, my twin sister, and my older brother in a Persian (Iranian) school. My twin sister and I were in first grade, and my older brother was in fourth grade. After two years, for some reason, my older brother quit Persian school and was registered in Urdu (Pakistani) school with my other two youngest brothers. My twin sister kept failing at school the whole two years she was there, and then she dropped out and stayed home until she got married at the age of 14. I was an A and B student but had trouble getting along with other students. I was very hyper and energetic and often got into physical fights, and our school principal was always in contact with my parents.
When we were in Pakistan, my father applied for a U.S. refugee case, with the help of one of his friends, so that we could have a much better life in the future and also repair my ear and hearing in the U.S. I had finished 8th grade when our case was approved, and we got our visas for the U.S. I was not happy or excited about coming to the U.S., because, first of all, I had been brainwashed by the Iranian school, and second, I was worried about not hearing any more news about Afghanistan’s situation. I have always hoped for Afghanistan to be a normal and peaceful country, like some European or Western countries. But it has not happened yet. Sometimes when I think about Afghanistan and its people and culture, I feel sorry and hopeless, and I start asking myself, “What is wrong with Afghanistan? Is Afghanistan’s fortune supposed to be like this (war-torn, undeveloped, poor, and chaotic)? Is it because Allah is mad at Afghanistan and this might be a punishment?”
Am I in Heaven?
In 1992 we finally moved from Pakistan and came to the United States and settled into our life in San Diego as a refugee family. When I arrived, the first thing I experienced was tremendous culture shock: “Wow! Where am I, in heaven or what?” I thought a fairy had transported me from a restricted country with covered and ugly people to a free country filled with half-naked good-looking people. Men and women were holding hands, hugging, and French kissing. Men and women became boy/girlfriends at early ages, had sex and babies before marriage, and children were disrespectful toward their families. Sometimes, I thought this kind of freedom would be too much for Afghanistan.
I was registered in Kearny High School in 10th grade, despite my very limited English skills. My two younger brothers were registered in an elementary school. While I was going through hearing, language, and cultural barriers, my father decided to have my left ear treated. I received two major surgeries. However, the doctor botched the surgery on my left side, making the whole left side of my face paralyzed and ugly. My hearing is now fine but not completely normal. The doctors told us that as time went on, my paralysis would go away, but it has only decreased slightly over the last 13 years. I graduated in June of 1994 from Kearny High School with a 3.6 grade point average and began attending San Diego Mesa College in 1995. At Mesa College, I worked hard on my writing, spelling, and grammar, with a lot of help from some English tutors. I even wrote an essay for the Mesa College Foundation scholarship award, and I got it.
Every step I took in my life was like entering into a different world but with a little more progress educationally and culturally. I met a lot of people from a lot of cultures in my school and jobs. My friends were usually Afghan people, some Arabs, Vietnamese, Chinese, and only a few Americans. I was more excited and happy when I met Afghans, Indians, or Pakistani people because, for some reason, it gave me a feeling of comfort and closeness, the feeling that I was not the only refugee from our country. I’ve also learned good things from those people, like some new languages and traditional activities. For instance, during my first college years, I did not know what a birthday celebration was. I never thought about my birthday because in Afghanistan most people don’t celebrate birthdays, and there weren’t any records of birth. So when some of my friends, teachers or tutors, knew my made-up birthday and said happy birthday to me, instead of me feeling happy and saying thank you, I felt bad and was offended. That was because I’d rather be dead than alive with my ugly, paralyzed face and life problems. Later on, when I learned that I was supposed to say thank you, I started saying thank you while chuckling. Some of my friends asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I’ve always said as a joke, “A machine gun!” Then they asked me, “ ‘Really?’ I said, ‘Believe it! I will go to my country and shoot all the Taliban!’ ”
I graduated from Mesa College with an AA degree and was accepted to San Diego State University in late 1997. My education was getting harder and harder and so was my financial status. During my last year at Mesa College, through the beginning of SDSU, I overcame a lot of problems, such as my facial paralysis, language barriers, and cross-cultural shocks. My family and I moved from our first apartment in Kearny Mesa to government housing on La Mesa Boulevard. My mother became sick and lost a lot of weight due to depression. Most Afghan women are so committed to their dominant husbands that they would do anything to please their husbands. I remember when my father used to take my mom to the doctor. When the doctor checked her weight, my mom used to attach a heavy brick on her stomach under her clothes so she would weigh a little more, just to make my dad feel better, even though she had actually lost weight. I was too young and immature to say something and wasn’t sure what she was doing anyway. So, in addition to having to study very hard, I had to take care of my sick mom, dad, brothers, and the house at the same time.
After being sick for almost a year, my mom passed away in January of 1998, which exacerbated my problems. My mom’s grave is on Imperial Avenue in San Diego. Sometimes I go visit her.
After my mom died, my dad went back to Qandahar, Afghanistan, forever. That freaked me out even more, and I got really scared because I know how dangerous Qandahar is. Who knew what might happen to my dad? I became angry at my dad, but he told me he would never leave his hometown no matter what. He loves Afghanistan, even though his life was in great danger there and bombs often exploded around his house. I called him often, when I heard news about Afghanistan, to make sure he was okay. But it still
didn’t ease my fear about him. My brothers and I were broke, with almost no money and no family. I started working part-time at the SDSU Student Resource Center and full time in a department store, Marshalls. During these times, we really needed someone to talk to and share our pain and loneliness.
I started missing classes and got bad grades because my life was very busy, and I was thinking about my two younger brothers’ futures and where we might end up. Then I stopped going to school, maybe forever, which made me cry, but I didn’t have any other choice than to work just to live a simple life. We loved California and tried different ways to continue living there. We had lived in San Diego for almost ten years and loved the weather, the city, and all the beauties of California. But even though my brothers and I all worked, it wasn’t enough to survive in San Diego. Finally, one of my friends told us about Colorado, and I moved to Denver, in mid-2001. Denver’s seasons are similar to Afghanistan’s seasons, but of course it’s much cleaner.
Again, I started thinking that not only had Afghanistan’s situation affected me emotionally, but also left part of my face paralyzed as well. I have never been happy about my appearance and thought nobody would ever marry me. I think it is a miracle from Allah that today I am married to a very special man and have a beautiful life full of love and care. But my mind is never far from Afghanistan. I always hope Afghanistan will be a normal and peaceful country in my lifetime.